The U.S. military has a politics problem
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The U.S. military has a politics problem
It’s a tough time to be a major U.S. institution. Television news? Congress? Big Business? They’re all at major deficits when it comes to Americans’ confidence in them. Historically, the U.S. military has enjoyed much, much better ratings. But a new poll is sounding the alarm.
From 2018 to 2022, trust and confidence in the uniformed services plummeted from 70 percent to 48 percent (it was 45% in 2021), according to the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Institute survey. No other public institution has endured as steep and speedy a fall, the foundation warned.
Many factors have contributed to this collapse. But none more so than the public’s perception that the military leadership has become overly politicized. A total of 62 percent of Americans said that accounts for a great deal (34%) or some (28%) of the drop.
Interestingly, it’s a bipartisan phenomenon.
Both Democrats (24%) and Republicans (43%) put it in second place among reasons for decreased trust and confidence. Number one for Republicans was so-called “woke” practices (which the poll did not define) at 47 percent, while for Democrats it was the presence of far-right extremists in the ranks, at 32 percent.
Overall, though, the second heaviest public-perception millstone around the military’s neck is the performance and competence of presidents (59%) followed by that of the military’s civilian leadership (55%), then that of uniformed military leaders (52%), the foundation found.
The general drop in confidence hasn’t just been steep, it’s also been consistent: From 70% in November 2018, to 63% in October 2019, to 56% in February 2021, to 45% in November 2021 (the withdrawal from Afghanistan probably fueled some of that 11-point fall), to 48% this November.
Leave aside generals-turned-presidents, a regular feature of the republic since its founding, or troops serving as backdrops to presidential speeches about national security. The military — especially retired officers — have gotten more drawn into partisan fights in recent years.
It’s no surprise that the collapse gathered speed when Donald Trump was president. His clashes with generals — of the active kind, and the retired and televised varieties — were frequent headline fodder. That might explain the relatively greater weight of the argument on the GOP side.
But even before him there were warning signs.
Former generals delivered partisan speeches at the two major conventions in 2016 — retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen fired up the Democrats, retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn galvanized Republicans.
More recently, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, has taken fire for a range of actions.
- Milley, in uniform, joined then-president Trump for a fateful walk from the White House to St. John’s Church after authorities had forcibly cleared Lafayette Square of protesters. He came under fire for thrusting the military into domestic politics. He publicly expressed regret.
- Later, he reportedly made disparaging behind-the-scenes comments about Trump, who demanded he resign and called him a traitor. (Milley’s office disputes this.)
- And Republicans expressed outrage when Milley publicly defended the teaching of critical race theory in an elective course at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“While several military leaders chose to involve themselves in partisan politics — Flynn, Allen and Milley — mostly our military are desperate to stay out of this fray,” said Kori Schake, who has held a variety of senior positions at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council.
In 2020, there were concerns about Americans in uniform at each of the major party conventions. And Trump worried some in the Pentagon with references to “my generals” and “my military.”
“The real blame for the public thinking of them in partisan terms is the relentless use of our military by politicians: Uniformed in campaign ads by candidates of both parties, Biden’s Marine backdrop for a speech about democracy failing, Trump castigating ‘the generals,’ Republicans castigating the serving Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a traitor,” said Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
“It’s terrible for the bond between our military and our society,” she told The Daily 202.
There’s another politicization challenge, though it may not look like one to people who don’t study civilian-military relations.
Two recent defense secretaries — Jim Mattis under Trump, Lloyd Austin under President Biden — needed special congressional waivers to serve because they had not been retired long enough under a statute meant to reinforce civilian control of the military.
Among the potential negative effects, this may fuel the perception that a political appointment is the capstone to a great military career, and mid-level officers may take decisions with visions of future confirmation hearings dancing in their heads.
The poll doesn’t explicitly connect these concerns to recruitment shortfalls, but it found that, among Americans 18-29 years of age, just 13% say they are highly willing to join up, 25% are somewhat willing, 20% and not very willing, and 26% are a hard no.
If the problem is politics, what’s the solution?
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